An ever-watchful eye has been cast on the food processing and preparation industries. Consumers are carefully examining each forkful of salad and each bite of a hamburger, prompted by the recent finger pointing by a California woman over allegations that part of a human digit was discovered in a bowl of chili served up at a fast-food restaurant.
Although not as dramatic as a body part, common items such as a piece of glass, a hairpin, cigarette butt or a bandage can easily find their way into food products if workers are not attentive to proper procedures. Any of these, while not becoming a headline grabber as a finger would become, can still result in legal issues and loss of business.
By its very definition, contamination is the “unintended presence”of harmful substances or microorganisms in food. It is “unintended”because no well-intentioned cook or restaurant operator would deliberately serve contaminated food. Therefore, it is the well-educated and informed food industry worker who is able to recognize potential contamination opportunities.
The most common sources of food contamination in a prep area include infected employees; unsafe employees; contaminated supplies; cleaning chemicals; pesticides; medications; personal items such as pens, jewelry, combs, etc.; tools, nuts, bolts and other equipment-repair items; hair from the employee’s head, arms or face; and an employee sneezing, coughing or scratching.
Note that most, if not all, of these potential sources of contamination are the result of personnel issues, leading to the irrefutable fact: The most difficult contamination to control is caused by people.
INFECTED AND UNSAFE EMPLOYEES
As a food manager, you must be certain that you and your staff have received the necessary training regarding food safety. Employees need to be aware of the fact that if they come to work while they’re ill, not only may they jeopardize the health of their fellow employees, but they may also contaminate the food. Symptoms such as fever, diarrhea, vomiting, sore throat or jaundice should be recognized. These employees either need to be sent home or restricted from working with or around foods.
Training for both new and tenured employees regarding safety in food preparation is a must, covering both personal and food safety issues. Recommended training courses such as the ServSafe program from the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation (NRAEF; Chicago, Ill.) should be administered to each employee every year.
CONTAMINATED SUPPLIES/CLEANING CHEMICALS
The food safety professional and his or her staff need to be able to recognize any potential problems with their supplies. A thorough knowledge of such business functions as food purchasing, receiving and storage must be put into practice every day.
Quite often, food is received past its expiration date or there is mold growth evident. Also, there could be evidence that frozen or refrigerated foods have undergone temperature abuse during transit. Potentially hazardous foods such as eggs and dairy, meat and poultry, shellfish and fish all have specific guidelines that must be followed to ensure that fresh food is received and stored properly.
An unfortunate but very common practice among small restaurants – as is the case in many households – is the storage of cleaning chemicals with food items. The opportunities for food contamination are great, even with sealed containers, since chemical residues on the outside of the containers can get on and into foods.
All cleaning chemicals should be stored in an area completely away from food, food-contact supplies and equipment, preferably in their own storage area. If storage space is limited, these chemicals should be stored on the opposite end of the room from the food and food supplies. At the very least, under the most cramped conditions, the cleaning products should be kept on the lowest shelves, with food items stored above. The food in storage should be limited to canned items and other foods in impermeable containers.